Wednesday, 21 March 2012

War trophy returned to England for exhibition

Roughly 350 years after the Dutch captured the English Flagship HMS Royal Charles and towed it back to the Netherlands as a war trophy, the carved stern of the ship has been returned to England.


The HMS Royal Charles was taken into possession by the Netherlands in 1667 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. A few years later the ship was destroyed, but its carved stern was preserved and eventually came to be displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Now for the first (and most likely only) time the stern carving has temporarily been sent to England so it can form part of an exhibition in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The exhibition it forms a part of, entitled “Power, Pageantry & The Thames”, is being held in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Loan and Ceremonies

Of course it’s not unusual for museums to lend artefacts to each other, but I found this one particularly interesting since the stern is a war trophy that is (albeit temporarily) returned to its former homeland. Now to my knowledge England has never made a formal request for the object’s return, but I can imagine that the director of the Rijksmuseum (or someone else, but I wonder who then? The Dutch population? The Dutch government?) is a bit anxious about the loan. The Dutch newspaper AD reported that the director noted several times that the loan was a “unique” event, not to be repeated ever again in the future and that he also said “I trust my colleague of the Maritime Museum in Greenwich to return it”.

What also fascinates me about these collaborations between museums is how elaborate the ceremonies can be that surround the handover of a piece of cultural property* from one group to another. In this specific instance the stern was shipped to England on the Dutch Patrol Vessel “Holland” under the watchful eye of admiral Borsboom. Once it had safely arrived in Greenwich it was then handed over by the Dutch crown prince Willem-Alexander to prince Michael, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth.

I wish I could have heard the speeches! It must have been very interesting as the AD furthermore reported that admiral Borsboom couldn’t neglect teasing the English during his speech. “We have fought many naval battles against the English and lost many. But here, in the heart of Great Britain, admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter destroyed the English fleet. We’ve returned 350 years later, but this time we’ve asked for permission”.

The stern after it has arrived in Greenwich. You can just see the box with the logo of the Rijksmuseum in which it has been packed. Copyright: The Netherlands Embassy.


* In this instance I decided to use the term ‘cultural property’ instead of ‘cultural heritage’. With the current trend in repatriating cultural heritage to its source group/nation I’ve become so confused that I’m not even sure if I can allocate the stern to my Dutch heritage anymore! On the one hand, like I mentioned before, I don’t believe England has ever formally asked for its return and the stern has been in our possession for roughly 350 years. However, on the other hand the objects has been created in England, for an English ship, and the only reason the Dutch have it now is that they stole it…

So is the stern now part of my Dutch heritage? Or is it part of England’s heritage? Or is it part of our shared heritage? But if we both have equal claims to the heritage, should we then not split custody of it? Perhaps display it in England for six months and then in the Netherlands for another six?

What are your ideas on this matter?


Also, if you’re interested in reading more about the handover here are a few links:
The Netherlands Embassy
HNLMS Holland

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